American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Dolphin Encounters in Key Largo
While researching Moon Florida Keys this past January, I had the opportunity to visit two intriguing marine mammal attractions in Key Largo. Together, the sister facilities Dolphin Cove (MM 101.9 BS U.S. 1, 305/451-4060 or 877/365-2683) and Dolphins Plus (31 Corrine Pl., 305/451-1993 or 866/860-7946, $10 non-participating adults, $5 non-participating children 7-17) pursue marine mammal research, promote environmental awareness, and present year-round educational opportunities to the visiting public. Both facilities are ideal for families on vacation, especially those who favor outdoor activities. Not surprisingly, children and teenagers really seem to enjoy interacting with the playful dolphins and frisky sea lions.
At Dolphin Cove, visitors can touch bottlenose dolphins through shallow-water encounters (1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily, $125 participants, $10 adult observers), experience dorsal tows and foot pushes in structured swims (9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. daily, $185 participants, $20 adult observers, $15 child observers 7-12), or snorkel alongside dolphins in natural swims (9:45 a.m. daily, $135 participants, $20 adult observers, $15 child observers 7-12). Other activities include painting with dolphins (9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. daily, $175 participants, $10 adult observers), Capt. Sterling's personalized Everglades and Florida Bay ecology tours, and the trainer-for-a-day program (8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, $630), which offers a behind-the-scenes look at this fascinating marine mammal facility, including the basics of animal training, dolphin behaviors, and food preparation, plus participation in various dolphin swims. Combo packages are also available, though be advised that, depending on the program, age, height, and physical restrictions may apply.
Farther south, Dolphins Plus is accessible via Ocean Bay Drive on the ocean side of U.S. 1, just south of mile marker 100. Here, visitors can also participate in structured (8:30 a.m., 12:45 p.m., and 3 p.m. daily, $185) and natural swims (9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily, $135 per half-hour, $220 per hour) with bottlenose dolphins, plus an engrossing trainer-for-a-day program (8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, $630). In addition, animal lovers can opt for dolphin body language workshops (8 a.m.-noon daily, $395) or an educational, one-on-one swim (11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, $120) with a frisky California sea lion named Wono – preceded by a 30-minute briefing about sea lion habitats, feeding habits, reproductive biology, and conservation, among other topics.
Truly passionate souls can also sign up for the full-day marine biologist program (8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $600), during which they'll learn about dolphin behavior and sampling techniques, participate in a study about mother-calf interactions, help to prepare fish and vitamin regimens for the on-site marine mammals, and engage in a private natural swim. Participants in this program must be at least 14 years of age, and anyone under the age of 18 must have a signed release form from a parent or legal guardian. Age and height restrictions may also apply with other activities, and reservations are highly recommended, especially for the full-day programs.
Although I'd love someday to participate in an in-depth, trainer-for-a-day program, I'm more than satisfied by the experience I had at Dolphins Plus. In late January, on a thankfully sunny afternoon, my husband and I joined a small group beside the lagoon, where a friendly trainer named Holly shared plenty of interesting tidbits about bottlenose dolphins, including the fact that they can shut down half of their brains to rest while still being able to swim, hunt, and communicate. As Holly said, “I would appreciate that ability. I'm not going to lie.” Amen to that!
During the brief introduction preceding the structured swim, we also learned that dolphins are motivated by eye contact, which is why they find children so appealing. In addition, Holly explained the benefits of a structured swim, which allows human-dolphin interaction in a way that's safe for both parties. Although the hand gestures that signal various dolphin behaviors vary from facility to facility, trainers throughout the Florida Keys use positive reinforcement with the same enticements, including fish, toys, and cheers. Before we headed toward the lagoon, Holly shared what was expected of us during these swims, suggesting that we rub the dolphins gently (“You don't want to tickle 800 pounds.”) and that we also pay attention to the behavior-ending whistle (“If you're respectful of the whistle, it will only help to strengthen your relationship with the dolphins.”).
Following the lesson, I borrowed a wetsuit, donned a life jacket, and soon found myself in the 68-degree water, floating in a letter-T position as instructed and ready to interact with Gracie and Sammy. During that memorable experience, I rubbed the dolphins' backs and bellies; got my own feet rubbed by them; received firm kisses from both at the same time; sang, twirled, and splashed with the two of them; got pulled and pushed around the lagoon; and generally had a blast interacting with these amazingly social animals. Though I'm not a proponent of swimming with wild dolphins, I found my experience at Dolphins Plus to be as educational as it was fun, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Florida Keys.
For information about other attractions in the Key Largo area, consult the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce (MM 106 Bayside U.S. 1, 800/822-1088, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily) – and enjoy your next stay in the Florida Keys!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Photo © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone